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Students Accused in Cheating Scandal Frustrated by Uncertain Process

By Mercer R. Cook and Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writers

As Harvard conducts its most sweeping investigation into academic dishonesty at the College in recent memory, several of the roughly 125 students implicated in the case say they are frustrated by the uncertainty they face as Harvard’s disciplinary board debates if and how to punish them.

On Thursday, Harvard administrators took the unprecedented step of announcing that they were investigating the large group of students for allegedly plagiarizing answers or inappropriately collaborating on a final take-home exam in an undergraduate class, which The Crimson reported was assistant professor Matthew B. Platt’s spring course Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.”

Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris declined to comment on how long the investigation, which is being conducted on a case-by-case basis, could take, but one undergraduate among the suspected cheaters said that Secretary of the Ad Board John “Jay” L. Ellison had told him in a personal meeting that he could expect to receive a verdict by November.

The student said he feels the Administrative Board process has left him unable to make plans for the new semester that begins on Tuesday as he waits to hear whether he will be forced to withdraw from Harvard.

“I don’t know whether to unpack for the year or not,” said the student, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he did not want it known that he is suspected of cheating. “Do I buy textbooks? ... Because you can’t go on as if everything’s okay, because everything’s not okay.”

Although the Ad Board does not meet during summer months, the student said he wished Harvard had summoned administrators to campus during the break to expedite the process so students would know their fate before the fall semester began.

“Because of the unprecedented nature of this, they should have started this process as early as they could,” he said. “When Harvard realized that they were dealing with such a big widespread issue…they should have said, ‘Hey, we need [administrators] back here.’”

In an internal email between College administrators obtained by The Crimson, Ellison wrote on Aug. 16 that if the Ad Board votes to require a student in this case to withdraw from the College for a year—a known penalty for academic dishonesty at Harvard—that penalty would likely take effect immediately, allowing the student to return for the Fall 2013 semester.

He discussed the possibility that some students, especially those who believe themselves to be guilty, might choose to take a voluntary leave of absence at the start of the term, before the board adjudicates their cases. Such a leave would likely be converted to a required withdrawal on their records if they were later convicted, the email said.

The message was addressed to “Colleagues,” and one resident dean, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson due to the secrecy of the Ad Board’s deliberations, said that the email was delivered to others of the 12 House resident deans, who all serve on the Ad Board.

In the message, Ellison wrote, “The only folks that may want to really consider [a leave of absence] are those students who know that they cheated,” and noted that some students found guilty in the case may be sentenced only to probation or a lighter penalty, not a required withdrawal.

But he also wrote that any student athletes under investigation might choose to withdraw voluntarily before their first games of the season, even if their cases have not yet been settled. “Once they compete one time their season counts and they would lose eligibility if they had to take a year off and return,” he wrote, though he noted that advising students on NCAA eligibility is not the job of the Ad Board.

Both Ellison and Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, declined to comment on the email, which also mentioned that several students had expressed confusion about the reprisals they might face.

“We have had some feedback from students about confusing messages in reference to possible sanctions for the Gov 1310 case,” the email opened, naming the course which administrators have said they will not publicly identify.

One alumnus under investigation, who took “Introduction to Congress” last spring before graduating in May, said the lack of answers about how cheaters could be punished is especially nerve-wracking for recent graduates.

“It’s unfair to leave that uncertainty, given that we’re starting lives,” said the alumnus, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he said he feared repercussions from Harvard for discussing the case. “It’d be a huge financial and emotional hardship…. If my degree was threatened, I would not take that lightly.”

The current undergraduate under investigation complained that Harvard’s decision to announce the cheating scandal publically—a choice which Harris said was based on the College’s desire to use the widespread accusations as a teachable moment to caution against academic dishonesty—might hamper students who take a voluntary leave of absence while awaiting their verdicts from pursuing alternate occupations.

If these students apply for jobs or internships for the fall semester, the student said, they will likely face questions from potential employers who may have seen media coverage about the case. That may be especially problematic if those applications require a transcript—which would list the now-besmirched Government 1310.

By going public with the investigation, the student said, Harvard has made it “just impossible to keep what's supposed to be a confidential matter a confidential matter.”

According to the Ad Board website, a student under investigation in a case that does not involve a peer dispute is first notified that a complaint has been received, a step which has already been completed for this investigation, the College said.

The student then meets with the Secretary of the Ad Board to discuss the complaint and the Ad Board process, a step that some students said they had already completed. Next, the student submits a written statement which is reviewed along with other case materials by a subcommittee that meets with the student before filing a disciplinary case report. The student can respond to the report before all materials are reviewed by the full Ad Board for a final decision.

The student is then notified of the verdict, which either preserves or takes away the student’s “good standing” at the College.

In academic dishonesty cases, possible sanctions that do not change a student’s status at the College include a grade penalty, failure of the assignment in question, or a mark on a student’s transcript indicating no credit.

Sanctions that do change a student’s status include a probationary period or a requirement to withdraw. Students under investigation or out of good standing cannot receive diplomas.

—Staff writer Mercer R. Cook can be reached at mcook@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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